The Green Papers Commentary

A few notes on the notion of
'Animal Rights' in the USA

Saturday, October 29, 2011

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff

This past week- on Wednesday 26 October 2011- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California in San Diego alleging that five orcas (also known as 'killer whales' [Orcinus orca]) in the possession of SeaWorld (three of the five are in San Diego; the other two are in Orlando) are being unconstitutionally kept against their will- that they are, in fact, "slaves"- in violation of Section 1 of the 13th Amendment to the Federal Constitution which reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

PETA's argument seems to rest, at least in large part, on a notion that the 13th Amendment applies to animals, as well as human beings, precisely because humans are nowhere specifically so protected against "slavery" and "involuntary servitude" within the text of the above-quoted relevant constitutional provision.

However: no comment could be elicited from the orcas who, after all, are the potential beneficiaries of PETA's lawsuit.

Much of the media has tended to look upon this as not much more than a mere publicity stunt by the organization; I myself see- within PETA's legal action- no little "piggybacking" on the recent media attention given to the 'Occupy Wall Street' protests in New York City and related demonstrations around the country (as well as elsewhere on the globe), as the notion that animals might be protected by one of the so-called "Civil War Amendments" to the U.S. Constitution might well be inspired, in a sense, by so many in the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement being opposed to that concept of Corporate Personhood that was the subject matter of my own most recent Commentary (in that, if artificial human-created institutions [such as corporations], not themselves human, can have so gained Rights and Privileges under the Constitution [though, in that 23 October 2011 Commentary of mine, I do explain why!], why not animals not human themselves?).

But, regardless of the actual impetus for PETA's lawsuit, it does bring up certain interesting (perhaps?) aspects of American Law well worth discussing.

First, allow me to most firmly state where *I* am coming from:

Human Beings are Animals. Indeed, the species Homo sapiens is classified (under most recent taxonomic standards) as being within the Family Hominidae of the Order Primates within the animal Class Mammalia: a Family which, by the way, includes all the so-called "Great Apes": the Gorilla, the Chimpanzee and the Orang-utan. In fact, given the science available nowadays of DNA study and the concept of Cladistics, Humans are themselves also among the "Great Apes".

The preceding statement has been controversial solely on moral/ethical and/or religious/spiritual grounds (at least to those who hold that Man is, somehow, apart from the rest of Kingdom Animalia as might regard such purposes) but these have nothing at all to do with the science of Biology and, thus, need not be dealt with here... suffice it to say: *I* am someone who- unlike many of my fellow humans- has long come to terms with my own "Ape-ness"!

In addition: have no patience whatsoever with the rather silly distinction made between "Man-made" and "Natural", for whatever be man-made is, by very definition, natural no less than, say, that which is "ant-made" (an Interstate Highway is no less natural, in and of itself, than an ant trail: one may well and fairly debate what such a superhighway might have done to the natural environment through which it passes but the development of highway building is the direct result of long-time human existence and experience going back into Prehistory)!

Right now, for instance: as I type these very words, an out-of-season snowstorm is bearing down on my part of the Northeastern United States and the animals in and around my yard are already hunkering down to ride out the storm, while I sit here in my home with the heat on-- why?-- because it's cold outside, dammit! True: the heating system in my house is the result of the development of human technology which, at least to my own observation, animals not human have themselves been unable to develop (then again, birds and mammals hereabouts have either feathers or fur coats for insulation as part of their bodily structure, things I myself do not have)... nonetheless, my not wanting to be too cold- that is: my desire to stay warm- is no less instinctual than it might be for any other warm-blooded creature!

Secondly (despite the fact that Man is, indeed, an animal): Animals not human have no Rights...

put another way: "Animal Rights" do not, in fact, really exist!

For Rights imply Responsibilities: a dog that pees on my carpet, for instance, does not turn to me and then say "Sorry, man: just couldn't wait for 'walkies'!"

Rights, therefore, are a human construct (as is a modern home heating system); and animals cannot (at least as of this typing) take responsibility for their actions-- else, I could then have the (too?) many White-tailed Deer [Odocoileus virginianus] who- all too often- come onto my property here in Northern New Jersey and nibble on the hedges that separate my home from my neighbor's arrested for both Criminal Trespass and Vandalism... or, at the very least, I could take legal action against them for same in a Civil Proceeding (but, then again, how would they then pay any damages so ordered by the court? In the form of their Raisinet-like "deer poop"?! They leave more than enough of that around my lawn already, thank you very much!)

But don't laugh too hard, gentle readers: for there are well-meaning and quite thoughtful professors in law schools throughout this land who are already pushing a legal concept- as regards animals- known generally as "Living Property" (something in between 'Animal Rights' and the current legal concept of animals as Property per se).

My very first question here, however, would be: would the designation "Living Property" also apply to Plants (or, for that matter, Bacteria)?

Back when I was still in college (this was during the mid-1970s, by the way: just to put this into proper historical perspective) and was still "between girlfriends", I attended a party at which I found myself conversing with a nice young lady who informed me she didn't eat meat primarily because she didn't "believe in killing living things": to which I responded "Surely you're not starving yourself to death?"... she laughed and told me that, of course, she was a vegetarian: I then immediately pointed out that "plants are just as much alive as we are, even if you can't actually hear the celery stalk screaming as you pull it out of the ground"...

needless to say: she did not give me her phone number! ;-)

In the end (as well as most seriously now): it is not about something called "Animal Rights"; rather, it is all about Human Responsibility!

Humans have the privilege (yes, privilege: since, unlike a Right, it can be legally restricted [re: such things as 'No Pets Allowed' apartments and the like]) of owning animals precisely because these same humans have an obligation (the equivalent- re: privileges- of legal Responsibility as related to one's exercise of Rights) to deal with said animals humanely... or to put it another way... well... to treat their animals ethically!

But, as ever, Ethics is- at least in a Free Society such as America's- still very much in the mind of the beholder...

now, if you will excuse me, I have to take my leave in order to (yet once again!) chase a herd of deer out of my back yard (as snow is now falling to boot)!! Um... I still have the Right to do this, don't I?!


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